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Wheaton, Hawkins: Let Us Reason Together, Please

How might a Christian college handle a controversy that threatens to undo it?
Wheaton, Hawkins: Let Us Reason Together, Please
Image: M. Spencer Green / AP Images

The situation at Wheaton College continues to unravel. Political science professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins refuses to meet any longer with the administration, and the college is now initiating the process of firing her—many assume because she said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. (If you’re not aware of this controversy, check out our news coverage here and here and here.)

Of course, a controversy of this magnitude—it’s been international news for weeks, with stories and comments in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, and now Time—is never actually “all because” of one thing. The media coverage has often needlessly inflamed the conversation, and yet you could hardly invent a case that would touch on a greater number of fundamental issues in Christian higher education:

1. The theological integrity of a Christian institution. Evangelical Christians want their institutions to have and maintain standards of belief and behavior. We’ve seen too many historical examples of Christian institutions that let their theological guard down, and the result has been the sabotaging of the institutions’ Christian identity.

2. Loving our Muslim neighbors. Islam and Christianity have literally been at each other’s throats for centuries. We need to figure out how not to slander one another, let alone kill one another. We want to encourage fellow believers to take bold steps to foster better relationships with Muslims.

3. Academic freedom. All truth is God’s truth. Professors at Christian colleges need freedom to explore truth wherever they might find it. This includes the right of professors to explore truth in research or activism. They should especially be protected by their administration from ill-informed intervention by donors and other powerful people outside the institution. Both Christian higher education and its faculties lose when academic freedom is thwarted.

4. Maintaining boundaries. Christians generally acknowledge that, as Christians, we voluntarily limit our freedom in order to obey God and flourish in communities. Freedom doesn’t mean that faculty and administrators can say or do whatever they want. That sort of freedom quickly saps the strength of any community.

5. Diversity on Christian campuses. White males no longer reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of contemporary Christianity. It’s a diverse movement, and evangelical institutions will be better for reflecting that. A large subtext of this controversy—to many, the main text—is that Hawkins is not only a woman but also African American. Losing her would diminish the school in many ways, as Wheaton administrators surely know.

6. Tenure. Tenure protects professors from arbitrary actions by the administration and trustees. Tenured professors should not have to live in fear of losing their jobs—or even being called on the carpet—over one or two misstatements.

7. Confidentiality. College administrators, and institutional leaders generally, should be able to have confidential conversations with each other and with faculty with whom they have disagreements. A policy of complete transparency would make it impossible for people to speak frankly for fear that their words would become public.

8. The right to know. Members of any Christian community have the right to know what its leaders are thinking and doing, especially when those leaders’ decisions affect them or the future of the institution.

These are just a few of the more salient values at stake. Even these values require some nuance. For example, theologically there is indeed a limited way in which we can say Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but in larger and more substantive ways, we don't. That issue needs careful parsing. How you nuance and rank these values will in large part determine whom you happen to side with at any given moment in the controversy.

We at CT are not sure we can unambiguously take a side at this point. Frankly, we have plenty of reasons to be disappointed with the actions of both Hawkins and the administration—let alone the accusations and innuendo being hurled by partisans of each side. It is far from a pretty witness of Christians sitting down and reasoning together in the manner of God’s treatment of us (Isa. 1:18).

We are not called to treat each other with patience and charity only when we agree with one another or disagree over something of little substance. It’s precisely when big issues are at stake— when decisions made today will affect entire institutions, professions, and even the evangelical movement—that we’re called to not bear false witness and not make premature judgments. Just at the time when it is the absolute hardest, that’s when we’re called to patience and charity.

This will not be the last controversy to engulf Wheaton, and such controversies will continue to find their way to other Christian colleges. The way this controversy has unfolded at Wheaton is not dissimilar to how controversies unfold elsewhere. The administration questions the theology of a faculty member; the faculty member says she has no problem signing the statement of faith; the administration says, “Not by our interpretation”; and the faculty member is dismissed. Sometimes that dismissal is justified, to be sure. And sometimes there are things going on behind the scenes that complicate the issue. But all things being equal, we wonder if there is a better way to handle matters like this.

Theological controversies rarely explode because a faculty member blatantly denies one or more items on the college’s statement of faith. Instead, administration and faculty disagree over how narrowly or widely to construe a statement. People start casting aspersions about motives and honesty. And then, because the administration usually reserves the right to be the final arbiter of such matters, the faculty member is fired. The faculty member looks like a martyr, the college looks like a bully, and the name of Christ is sullied. Badly.

Is there a better way? We think so, especially when the college’s statement of faith does not specifically address the issue at hand. Wheaton’s statement of faith says nothing about whether Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration says that the statement is clear enough to reject that idea. Hawkins and friends say there is plenty of room in the statement to affirm it, while also reaffirming their commitment to the uniqueness of Christ. It seems to us that if the matter is, in fact, not clear in the statement, and if members of that college community actually disagree about the interpretation of the statement on this point—well, the place to begin is not by assuming the worst on each side. The college doesn’t have to flex its muscles nor does the accused have to play the martyr. If in fact, there is a point in genuine dispute, does it not make sense, especially at a Christian institution of higher learning, to sit down together and take some time to study?

This could take weeks of intense dialogue, and not just privately between the accuser and the accused. Many people with varied expertise could be invited to discuss the issue. Students could be invited to participate in the process as well.

This does not relieve the school of the responsibility of making a final determination. Not everything that is up for discussion and investigation is simply a matter upon which we can agree to disagree. So, the administration may decide that it has not been clear and begin the process of formally clarifying its standards. Or it may decide that after community input, the matter can be left to the individual’s conscience. Or it may decide, no, the faculty member’s stance is still not within the bounds and let the person go, on a timetable and with severance pay that conveys respect.

Surely it is not too late for this to happen at Wheaton.

We don’t know all the issues involved behind the scenes. Such a process—not just a process to terminate a faculty member’s employment, but a process to clarify the institution’s commitments— may not be possible given factors we are unaware of. Still, we’re wondering if the college can withdraw its recommendation to fire Hawkins, as well as end its suspension of her. We’re wondering if it would be possible for Hawkins to agree to resume talking with the college, and stop talking to the public, about this matter. We’re wondering if everyone can take a deep breath, acknowledging they haven’t always done right by those with whom they disagree. We’re wondering if the college can initiate a public conversation on the topic that ignited the firestorm, inviting people of various views to argue their case. We’re wondering if this could become a model for the world, that when it comes to the most important issues, we Christians can speak with wisdom and charity to one another.

Of course, after such conversations, a decision will have to be made. This process might not actually change what currently appears to be the most likely outcome—because no process guarantees a happy ending. But it might help model how Christians agree to disagree and move on without anger, resentment, and ongoing hostility. This would be a great legacy for Wheaton College to leave our movement and the world.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.

December
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